The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland is a lot like a socialite’s charity ball. Everyone publicly announces that they’re attending for the good the event will do even as they privately focus on how the party will enhance their status, display their wealth and confirm their importance. The similarities only grow when you contemplate the competition over who found a better way to travel to the mountaintop–it’s not a question of flying private but whose plane you were invited on board (call it tail number envy)–and which parties, after-parties and after-after parties one goes to.
Judging from the press coverage of this year, the only difference between Davos and the season in Gstaad would appear to be the presence of journalists. And looking at what they’ve written, most don’t seem terribly happy to be going.
Andrew Ross Sorkin dwells on the costs of attending the event while hinting that the WEF is making a killing from it’s $185 million in revenue–half of which goes to the staff in compensation, just like an investment bank–before quoting a Davos stalwart who feels the bloom is off the rose:
As one attendee, the author David Rothkopf, recently wrote on his blog, “The entire endeavor is fading for several reasons, all associated with the inadequacy of Davos as a networking forum.”
Davos had become a “self-help” group, where CEOs trade information and feel solidarity in a hostile world. “It’s a bit like Weight Watchers,” he quips. “A place where CEOs can get support.”
Reuter’s Felix Salmon had a debate with his colleague Chrystia Freeland over the value of going to Davos and Henry Blodget has turned his first trip to Switzerland into a reality-based blog project where he professes to show what Davos is really like! His conclusion: it’s high school! (Thankfully Blodget didn’t add the now hackneyed simile “It’s like high school with money.”)
The big surprise here isn’t the doubts about Davos’s efficacy, importance or value to the attendees. An event that has received this much media attention–(does Blodget really think there’s any mystery left to what happens at Davos?)–was bound to get a big backlash. Reporters who think they’re going to get some direct benefit from making the trek to Davos are sadly mistaken. As news, Davos is a fake event best suited to CNBC stand-ups and anodyne CEO interviews.
As a non-news event, a place to actually talk and interact, Davos may be gaining in importance.
Parag Khanna has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining why Davos remains relevant to its attendees even if it might have lost some of its appeal as a networking event:
The reason is that in our ever more complex diplomatic eco-system, relations among governments represent only one slice of the total picture. Beyond the traditional “public-public” relations of embassies and multilateraism, there are also the “public-private” partnerships sprouting across sectors and issues. […] The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow “coalitions of the willing” to organically “grow and go”—incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.
To Khanna, Davos is neutral space for relations between governments, corporations and regional actors, both larger than the state and smaller. With so much about the world economy–and the financial crisis–falling beyond the traditional borders of state power, it’s essential that there be a meeting ground where public and private are on an equal footing.
The discomfort that the media may have with Davos isn’t that it is boring, lacking in news or they don’t rate high enough in the status food chain. Most of the media just can’t seem to figure out their own role at the event.
Most, but not all, Google knows it’s an important player on the world stage. And the company understands that it is a media entity. That’s why it holds top social spot with its now-annual party. (Incidentally, this is the party Henry Blodget is most miffed not to have been invited to.) A few other intrepid media figures who are less anxious about their own status also recognize that Davos is a place for them to be among their peers–the figures they cover at length.
The truth is that the media should better represented. There are few who will benefit greatly from being at Davos, not for the news that comes out of the event but for the same reasons that the corporate, NGO and governmental attendees are there.
Indeed, everything that’s valuable about Davos is not worth covering as news. Klaus Schwab’s decision to cultivate the media, promote the event as an oasis for conversation and contemplation away from the pressures of the works and bring in reporters as “media fellows” might have been clever marketing but long since lost its value.
If Khanna is right that Davos is now a venue for multi-lateral diplomacy, the media play a role as another peer group. Davos should be their chance to lose the pose of neutral observer and become full participants but behind closed doors. Since nothing really happens at Davos–it’s an enormous backgrounder–there should be no problem with the press checking their laptops at the bottom of the mountain.
Besides, there’s plenty of ways to see the public aspects of Davos if you’re really interested. The events are broadcast on Facebook by Livestream here. Twitter is already bristling with the #Davos, #WEF and #Davos11 hashtags. Of course you could also just follow @reformedbroker and get the best of what’s happening from one who is truly there.